The world's first cat café, Cat Flower Garden, opened in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1998. However, the idea really took off in Japan, where the first cat cafe was opened in 2004, in Osaka. The idea of a cafe where predominantly urban cat lovers, often unable to own a cat themselves, could go to pet cats while they drank coffee, really appealed to Japanese town dwellers. Often these people lived in apartments, and were banned from keeping animals. And it wasn't just in Japan that this idea was popular. Soon the concept spread – to the United States, mainland Europe, and the UK, where the first cat cafe opened in 2013. Soon these cafes were opening everywhere – London, Manchester, Nottingham, Derby, and Newcastle Upon Tyne...to name but a few. By September 2016 there were nine cat cafes throughout the UK, and the number seems to still be increasing.
But are these cafes actually a good idea? Is this the perfect way for people to meet cats and interact with them, as the cafe owners and many customers would have us believe? Or are they an unsuitable environment for cats, as others say, and should they even be banned?
Let us look at what actually happens in a cat cafe. Cat cafes vary a lot in details, but the basic idea is quite simple - customers can meet and interact with the resident cats while they consume drinks, meals and snacks. Some cat cafes also rehome their cats, but again, this is variable. Most of these cafes have toys and sleeping areas for the cats within the cafe, and a number also have separate areas for the cats well away from the customers.
Those who agree with cat cafes are often very enthusiastic concerning everything about them. They say that they allow cat lovers, particularly those who for some reason cannot own their own cat, to meet and interact with cats during their normal daily activities. They add that the cats enjoy it, and in many cafes the cats can escape into their own quarters if they want to. The cafes can educate the public about cats, and some cats actually acquire new homes with cafe customers. Indeed, it seems on the face of it to be a remarkably good idea.
However, a number of cat charities have come out strongly against cat cafes. These include Cats Protection, the RSPCA and the Celia Hammond Animal Trust. Nicky Trevorrow, behaviour manager at Cats Protection, has been quoted as saying that "cat cafes are not a suitable environment for cats because they are in a confined space with a revolving population of people." The RSPCA also crtiticises them, saying that it doesn't recommend keeping large numbers of cats together in one place. "Our main concerns include the stress caused by unfamiliar strangers wanting to stroke and handle the cats," the organisation says.
So who is right? Are cat cafes a good idea or a bad thing? I have visited two cat cafes fairly close to my home, in Nottingham and Derby, hoping to find out.
The Nottingham cat cafe is in the city centre. It is bright and cheerful, with large windows, and a number of cat toys, climbing frames, and a cat exercise wheel. It is very popular with customers, and you need to book in advance. There is a double door system so that there is no chance of the cats escaping, and then customers have to read and sign the cafe rules. These include not picking up any cat, and not disturbing any cat which obviously wants to be left alone. The cats have the run of the cafe, but have a cat door through to their own quarters in another section of the building. Food is prepared in am area separate from the cat cafe itself , and cat care staff and cafe staff are kept separate, for hygiene reasons. Customers can pet and stroke the cats, and a number of cats and kittens have been rehomed from the cafe.
The Derby cat cafe is much smaller and more informal. Again, there is a double door system for entry, but there are no formal rules for customers, who can simply pet the cats which happen to be around. Again, the cats have their own quarters, in this case on a separate floor, and they run upstairs if they want to be alone.
As a cat lover, I really enjoyed visiting these cafes. Indeed, I didn't want to leave! I thoroughly enjoyed making friends with the resident cats and kittens, and they seemed to like it too. More importantly, I could find nothing wrong with either of these cafes so far as the cats were concerned. All the cats and kittens seemed to be happy and well cared for, and they appeared to enjoy being in the cafe. Those that weren't happy could escape to their own quarters, and sometimes they did so.
Clearly living in a large group like this is not suitable for all types of cats, and there may well be some shy and retiring individuals who do not like it, but the cats I saw all seemed well adjusted and happy.
It seems to me that cat cafes are here to stay, whether we like it or not. So perhaps we should be looking at how to make them better, rather than simply criticising them. After all, they could well help with rehoming cats, and thereby take some of the pressure off our struggling cat rescue organisations. This would clearly be a good idea and could help many cats.
However, every cat cafe must definitely be set up and run extremely carefully. Things can go wrong on many levels; indeed, one cat cafe in the UK has already been forced to close due to “poor hygiene standards.” So perhaps what we really need is some specific government rules and regulations on how cat cafes should be set up and run. That way, only the good ones would be allowed to operate, and this would be ideal for both people and cats.